By Oscar H. Blayton
It is time for some honest talk about gender politics in Black America.
With the rise of “Trumpism,” our community needs all hands on deck to engage in the struggle. And using all available human resources requires that we not push women to the background in order to maintain male dominance as the preferred social order.
Very few Black men can truthfully deny that they have witnessed and participated in a culture and a social order that normalizes male privilege in a way that devalues women. This social order is called “patriarchy.”
Patriarchy promotes the belief that the world should be run only by men. When it comes to the Black community in America, patriarchy dictates that our institutions, organizations and movements should be run only by men. But we, as Black men, must come to understand that this is a wrong-headed view of the world.
Not every Black man in America supports patriarchy. But unfortunately, too many of us do. The truth of the matter is that we can no longer afford to subscribe to the notion that leadership in the Black community has to be gender based.
The necessity for developing a gender-neutral leadership structure in the Black community can be illustrated by a few pointed examples.
The headmistress of a boarding school I attended years ago often reminded students that while Frederick Douglass only carried himself to freedom when he fled from bondage, Harriet Tubman led more than 300 men, women and children out of slavery and led the Combahee River Raid during the Civil War that freed another 750 more. This was not to negate the great abolitionist work that Douglass did, but rather to affirm the work of Tubman that was as great or greater.
Add to Harriet Tubman’s name a list of women like Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Madam C. J. Walker, Maggie L. Walker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm and Kamala Harris, just to name a very few, and it becomes abundantly clear that there have always been extraordinary leaders among the women of the Black community. And let us not forget Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, founders of the Black Lives Movement. Given this rich history of Black female leadership, it defies reason that some Black men still hold to the notion that leadership is the domain of men.
The United Negro College Fund has a powerful catch phrase: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I know of no Black person who does not understand the significance and impact of preventing capable individuals from actualizing their capabilities, realizing their full potential and achieving their goals. But too many of us understand this within the context of race, while never thinking about it within the context of gender.
Thinking back to the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, it boggles the mind to think that male leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were opposed to having women speak to the many thousands of Americans who had gathered in the nation’s capital to demand equality for all. That march was for jobs and freedom. But where was the concern for equal pay and employment opportunities for Black wo- men in the politics of those men who organized and led that march? Where, in their politics, was the concern for Black women to be free of inhibitions imposed on them by a patriarchal society? The women who were involved in helping to organize and carry out the March on Washington had to fight to get just one Black woman to the microphone on that day. The decisions of the Black male organizers of the March on Washington silently signaled that Black women could stand behind their men but not beside them.
It is to the shame of the male leaders of the march that the Black feminist activist Pauli Murray had to comment on the erasure of women that day by saying: “The Negro woman can no longer postpone or subordinate the fight against discrimination because of sex to the civil rights struggle but must carry on both fights simultaneously.”
In the briefest shorthand possible, it can be said that racism in America means that certain white people believe they are better than Black people.
Likewise, it can be said that sexism in Black America means that certain Black men believe they are better than Black women. This is an ugly truth, but now is not the time to turn away from the mirror.
It is shameful, wasteful and counterproductive for Black men to deny full partnership to Black women in every sense of the word. It is time for Black men to become Black feminists by developing a Black feminist consciousness.
Developing a Black feminist consciousness for Black men should be an aspirational process, grounded in one’s self-awareness of maleness and male privilege, where men seek to become — and remain — aware of both the struggles and goals of Black women in order to assist, as supporters and allies, in THEIR struggle towards THEIR goals.
The African American Policy Forum, a think tank working to dismantle structural inequality, has launched an effort to try to get Black men to understand why it is important for us to be Black feminists. Recently, they called for a gathering of individuals who self-identify as males to discuss the importance of Black feminism in sustaining the Black community and the necessity for Black men to become Black feminists. This gathering was a first step, little noticed by most and even derided by some. But it is a step forward in addressing many of the obstacles facing Black America. We need more organizations to follow their example.
America has taken a very ugly turn that could possibly cause a great deal of damage and injury to the Black community. We can no longer afford to have Black women’s hands tied behind their backs by patriarchy in the Black community. Black women should not have to fight Black male patriarchy as they rally to the barricades against racism.
And Black women should not have to fight alone against sexism.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.